(Istanbul) – Justice for the thousands of state-perpetrated killings and disappearances of Kurdish civilians in the 1990s should be an essential part of the peace process under way in Turkey , Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch released a video  outlining the events of that era, with family members whose loved ones were killed describing the lack of justice ever since. Ongoing talks between the Turkish government and Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), aim to end a decades-long conflict to further human rights and democracy in Turkey.
“Justice for the crimes of the 1990s is an important element among the human rights steps to resolve the Kurdish issue,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb , senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ending decades of impunity for security forces and other public officials for the serious human rights violations perpetrated in the 1990s will take a real commitment from the government and prosecutors.”
In the new video, families of victims talk about their long search for justice for the execution-style killings, disappearances, and deaths in custody carried out by state agents in southeast Turkey and in some of the country’s main cities in the early 1990s. The video explains that Turkey’s 20-year time limit on criminal investigations for murder means that without urgent action there may soon be procedural obstacles to pursuing prosecutions in cases from the early 1990s.
The video includes interviews with some of the many families of victims who, in the absence of domestic investigations and prosecutions, brought their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, after they were denied justice in the Turkish courts. In repeated judgments against Turkey, the European Court found violations of the right to life and a pattern of failure to conduct effective investigations. These families continue to seek the prosecution in Turkey’s courts of those who killed their relatives and want to see justice enforced at home too.
In the most recent European Court ruling  on April 16, 2013, in the case of Meryem Çelik and others, the court held Turkey directly responsible for the July 1994 disappearance of 12 men who are presumed dead, and the killing of another, following a military operation in a village in Hakkari province. The court further ruled that there had been a failure to investigate the 13 cases or the circumstances leading to the death of a fourteenth man whom soldiers allegedly shot dead in the village during the operation. The court ordered compensation to the families totaling €1.4 million.
In spite of many such rulings over the years, the Turkish authorities have taken few steps to put military personnel and state officials suspected of these crimes on trial.
Many of the cases from the period 1993 to 1996 may soon reach the time limit in domestic law for prosecutions, and the responsibility falls to both government and prosecutors to overcome the barrier presented by the statute of limitations in these cases. They can take steps to set aside the statute of limitations, either as a matter of case law or through legislative changes or both. Turkey has an obligation under international law to prosecute these serious human rights crimes and to enforce the findings of the European Court judgments, Human Rights Watch said.
A Human Rights Watch report  in September 2012 identified the statute of limitations as a key obstacle to accountability for these crimes.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly explained why statutes of limitations cannot be applied to prevent prosecutions of serious human rights abuses. It made the case in a legal opinion  presented to the justice minister in January that a change in the law to lift the statute of limitations in these cases would allow for their future prosecution and would not violate the principle of legality in international law.
A reform package  passed by Turkey’s parliament on April 11 lifted the statute of limitations on investigating and prosecuting the crime of torture. The change offers an opportunity for accountability for acts of torture by security officials in the 1980s and 1990s, for which investigation and prosecution had previously been barred.
“Following the very positive step Turkey’s parliament took in the latest reform package to end time limitations on prosecuting torture cases, the government should ensure that there are no obstacles to justice for killings and disappearances by state forces or officials,” Sinclair-Webb said.
“European Court rulings such as the most recent one concerning the disappearance of 12 villagers in Hakkari are a reminder that the Turkish authorities have a duty to hold to account military, police, and other state officials for killing and disappearing civilians at the height of the conflict with the PKK in the early 1990s,” Sinclair-Webb said. “Prosecuting the crimes of the 1990s era would also help build the foundations of lasting peace.”
Prosecutors in Ankara have invoked the European Court judgments in decisions not to bar some old investigations into political killings despite the statute of limitations, citing a failure to conduct effective investigations in the past and the need to combat impunity. While the prosecutors’ actions should be supported and represent an important step forward, they should be complemented by legal reform that abolishes the application of the statute of limitations for killings involving state officials in the same way as for torture, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch video interviews
In two cases, Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of victims who are still seeking justice in Turkey, despite winning cases at the European Court of Human Rights.
Adnan Örhan’s father, Selim Örhan, an uncle, Hasan Örhan, and cousin, Cezayir Örhan, were detained by a unit of the Bolu Commando Regiment during a military operation against their hamlet in Çağlayan village in the Kulp district of Diyarbakır province in May 1994. After a 2002 judgment (Örhan v Turkey) in which the European Court held Turkey responsible both for their deaths and for failing to conduct an effective investigation, among other violations, the Turkish authorities took no steps to reopen the investigation to identify and prosecute those responsible.
Despite a DNA test that in 2007 identified bones discovered in a mass grave as belonging to Adnan Örhan’s father and uncle, the Diyarbakır prosecutor’s office has still not actively pursued an investigation or interviewed witnesses. Almost 19 years after the disappearances, without resolute steps to investigate, the statute of limitations in the case will expire in May 2014.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed Resul Kaya, who was among dozens of villagers whom soldiers tortured during a military operation in February 1993 against their village, Ormaniçi, in the Güçlükonak district of Şırnak province. Seven among the villagers had to have feet or toes amputated as a result of incurring frostbite and then gangrene after being made to walk through snow then to stand for many days in cold water while in detention. Kaya described to Human Rights Watch how a group of soldiers had set fire to him and attempted to burn him to death.
The villagers from Ormaniçi took a case to the European Court, which ruled in Ahmet Özkan and others v Turkey that the Turkish authorities were responsible for torturing them, for the death of one man, and for burning down their homes. Despite the ruling, no one in Turkey was subsequently put on trial for these crimes.
Kaya also told Human Rights Watch that in June 1994 in a second military operation against the village, soldiers summarily executed his father, Mehmet Kaya, and three other villagers and that there had never been any investigation into the killings. After speaking to Human Rights Watch, Resul Kaya and families of the other villagers executed in June 1994, filed a new complaint with the Cizre public prosecutor and expect to be called in the coming days to testify before the prosecutor as witnesses and plaintiffs in the case.
The third interview in the Human Rights Watch video is with Saadet Dayan and Halil Dayan, concerning the death in custody in January 1994 of Ebubekir Dayan, an imam in Cizre. Saadet Dayan, his widow, told Human Rights Watch that her husband was summoned to the police station and detained for over two weeks. She told how she went to the morgue to identify his dead body, which bore the signs of torture.
She showed Human Rights Watch the possessions her husband had with him when he was detained and that the police had returned to her with his body. For 19 years she has preserved Ebubekir’s watch and takke, the hat he wore during prayer, his comb, belt, and a box of matches.
Halil Dayan, Ebubekir Dayan’s father and himself an imam, told Human Rights Watch that the family is still seeking justice for the torture and killing of Ebubekir.